In recent weeks, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has made and detailed the extraordinary claim that Tesla vehicles will defy the laws of the automotive market by becoming more valuable after customers purchase them.
“If you buy a Tesla today, I believe you are buying an appreciating asset, not a depreciating asset,” Musk said during an interview with MIT research scientist Lex Fridman.
Musk’s prediction is based on two assumptions: Tesla vehicles will be able to drive themselves without any human input by the end of 2018, and customers will be able to make money from their vehicles by including them in an autonomous ride-hailing service Musk says will be ready next year.
Still, Musk’s claim that Tesla vehicles sold today will command higher prices in the future is unusual, because, in almost all cases, a car begins losing value the moment it is driven off a dealership’s lot. According to AAA, cars lose around 15%-20% of their value each year.
Only in very rare cases does a car’s value increase after it is sold, said Eric Ibara, the director of residual value consulting for Kelley Blue Book. While automotive CEOs may predict that a car’s value will hold up better than its competitors’, they do not tend to claim that their vehicles will become more valuable over time.
“I don’t remember any CEO claiming that the value would go up,” Ibara said.
Musk’s prediction faces many obstacles
Of course, Musk’s prediction rests on technology that has no precedent in the auto industry. Previous generations of automotive CEOs have not faced the prospect of autonomous taxi services that can allow customers to make money from their vehicles when they’re not using them.
But even if Musk is correct about his timeline for the introduction of Tesla’s autonomous-driving technology, it’s not clear that Tesla vehicles purchased today would become more valuable in the future. Some components, like brakes, batteries, and lights, would still wear down, and others, like seats and door handles, would wear down faster due to the increased use they would receive from ride-hailing customers, said Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst for Navigant Research.
“Except for the engine, everything that has wear-and-tear on a gasoline or diesel-engine car is still there on an electric vehicle and still wears out,” Abuelsamid said.
Physical deterioration aside, Tesla would have to be the only automaker with self-driving technology that required no human supervision for its vehicles to have a chance of becoming more valuable, Ibara said. Given the level of competition Tesla faces in the autonomous-vehicle industry, that’s unlikely.
“A lot of other manufacturers and non-automotive companies are rushing into this area, so the scenario where Tesla has this capability all to themselves is a little far-fetched,” Ibara said.
But that’s exactly what Musk has predicted, saying he believes that Tesla is far ahead of its competitors in the race to develop fully-autonomous driving technology.
“I could be wrong, but it appears to be the case that Tesla is vastly ahead of everyone,” Musk said during his interview with Fridman.
Musk has missed projections about autonomous-driving technology on multiple occasions. In 2015, he said it would ready in about two years, and Tesla has passed multiple deadlines set by Musk to send a self-driving vehicle across the US.
“People like me, we roll our eyes when we hear claims like this from Tesla,” said Ragunathan Rajkumar, a co-director of Carnegie Mellon’s Connected and Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab, about Musk’s recent prediction.
Fully-autonomous driving technology is likely a minimum of eight years away, and it is highly unlikely that Tesla or any other company will have self-driving consumer vehicles ready by the end of this year, Rajkumar said.
Self-driving cars probably won’t be ready by the end of this year
Among the biggest obstacles Tesla faces has nothing to do with complicated software: Its cars have no mechanism to clean the cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors that comprise the company’s autonomous-hardware suite, Abuelsamid said.
“They don’t have anything on their cars to keep the sensors clean,” he said, which means that, even if Tesla developed fully-autonomous driving software, the company’s vehicles would only be able to drive themselves in favorable weather and environmental conditions. Otherwise, the sensors could become covered with dirt, snow, or debris and have trouble detecting objects around them.
And Tesla’s system, which leans heavily on cameras and does not include the lidar sensors — which emit pulses of light to detect nearby objects — that many of the company’s competitors use, could also have problems when visibility is limited.
“A camera-based system is not going to work on a foggy day,” Abuelsamid said.
Like Rajkumar, Abuelsamid said no company is likely to have fully-autonomous driving technology ready for consumer vehicles by the end of this year, and there’s only a small chance that a company will be able to operate an autonomous ride-hailing service with no safety drivers, even in a limited geographic area under certain weather conditions, in a that timeframe, though the Google spin-off Waymo and the General Motors-backed Cruise are in the best position to do so.
“If there’s anyone that’s close to it, it’s probably Waymo and maybe GM/Cruise, but even they are not there yet, and they will tell you that,” Abuelsamid said. “That’s why they still have human safety drivers.”
Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
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